From the Staten Island secession movement to the revolt against the Rainbow Curriculum, New York’s outer boroughs are increasingly frustrated with the highly centralized city government dominated from Manhattan. In the midst of these conflicts, several city leaders are putting forth proposals forgiving more authority to the boroughs and local communities. The City Journal invited representatives from the borough presidents’ offices and a number of independent scholars to discuss the problems produced in New York by overcentralization.

EDWARD COSTIKYAN, Editorial Board, City Journal: In a February speech, Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden called for a state commission that would examine ways of enhancing the responsibilities of the boroughs. “Power to the boroughs,” he said, “is power to the city.” His counterpart from Manhattan, Ruth Messinger, has offered a plan for decentralizing the city’s school system that would diminish the size and power of the central bureaucracy and give far more authority to local districts.

Borough President Golden, perhaps you could begin by outlining your proposal and the reasons behind it.

HOWARD GOLDEN, Brooklyn Borough President: The secession movements are not being driven by pride or politics. The issue is simply that people in the boroughs are fed up with a centralized bureaucracy that fails to respond to their needs. While the city budget has grown steadily—it’s now more than $29 billion—the centralized bureaucracy cannot seem to get a street sign replaced on Staten Island, a pothole filled in Queens, a fire hydrant fixed in Brooklyn, or a vacant lot cleaned and fenced off in the Bronx.

The secession movement is building steam now because the charter revision of 1989 robbed the boroughs of their voice in city government. When the charter commission dismantled the Board of Estimate, it failed to provide a meaningful role for the boroughs in areas such as service delivery, allocation of resources, planning and development, contracting, and capital construction.

The city’s central bureaucracy is so big and so fragmented that it is often unable to carry out its duties effectively. To cite one example, there are no fewer than seven different city agencies overseeing and regulating day-care centers. The Human Resources Administration, Agency for Child Development, Department of General Services, Corporation Counsel, Health Department, Fire Department, and Buildings Department all share the responsibility of ensuring that these centers are operated in a safe and sanitary way. Yet my office uncovered a pattern of leaky roofs, inoperable heating and ventilation systems, backed-up sewers, and broken equipment. I asked who is responsible, and people from the seven city bureaucracies all shook their heads sadly, shrugged, and pointed to the next guy.

This kind of unresponsiveness is what is driving Staten Islanders—and many people in Queens and Brooklyn as well—to talk about leaving the city. I think the secession movement is wrong. But it carries a powerful message to New York’s leaders: If we want to keep the city together, we must change the way it is governed.

Therefore, I have proposed that the State Legislature create a commission, consisting of elected officials, community leaders, government analysts, and management experts, which would be charged with developing a plan for broad-based borough management of service delivery, planning and development, and resource allocation.

RUTH MESSINGER, Manhattan Borough President: I am very impressed with Howard Golden’s emphasis on the need to find the size and shape of government that is most efficient and responsive, and I agree that part of this effort lies in finding ways to maximize the strength of borough governance. Manhattan neighborhoods, too, have problems with the city government. Central Harlem and the Lower East Side, for example, are saturated with “community service facilities”—drug treatment centers, homeless shelters, and the like. The people in these neighborhoods feel the city is not sensitive enough to the effects such facilities have on the local quality of life. These are the same kinds of community problems that make people in Staten Island and Queens want to secede.

People throughout New York City are angry because their city government taxes them heavily, does not work very effectively on their behalf, and sometimes totally frustrates obvious common sense. The goal, therefore, is to figure out a way to make this very large city—which I would like to keep as one city—work efficiently.

NICHOLAS GAKAUFIS, Counsel to the Queens Borough President: I think we are a lot closer to the moment of truth than many people realize: If we do not come up with a way to make our municipal government more responsive, New York City may well break apart. Staten Islanders will be voting on secession this November, and in Queens we have a well-organized, capable, and enthusiastic group of civic leaders who believe that our borough is shortchanged in matters of service delivery, land use, and any number of other city responsibilities. They are pressing our legislative leaders in Albany on the issue of secession.

The question is whether we can provide the public with real, sensible choices. Can we develop a plan of borough governance in those areas where it would work best? An excellent model is the Parks Department, which has worked closely with the borough presidents and local community boards. New Yorkers want a government structure that will give them the best possible service in exchange for the taxes they pay. If we offer them no options other than the status quo and secession, then we haven’t done our job.

EDWARD COSTIKYAN: Would a real plan for decentralizing the city government take the wind out of the sails of the secession movement, even in Staten Island, where it’s much further along?

MARILYN BLOHM, Chief of Staff, Staten Island Borough President: I am not certain that anything could deflate the movement unless people perceive that their taxes would increase so much that they could no longer afford to live in Staten Island.

But decentralization would be good for Staten Island. A disproportionate amount of the money we have to spend at the borough level goes toward services that should be provided by the city—things like sewers and road maintenance. We think we could do a better job of managing many of these services at the borough level.

Because the borough’s streets are not on a grid, a missing street sign is sometimes a matter of life and death: It can be very hard for emergency workers to find someone who is having a heart attack. The borough president has not only had to press our local commissioners to buy new signs and put them up, but in recent years he has paid for these signs with borough discretionary money.

JOSEPH VITERITTI, Staff Director, Charter Commission for Staten Island: In some ways Staten Island is a special case, because it’s a small borough, with only three votes in a 51-member City Council. One can’t say the current system is unfair, because it abides by the one person, one vote rule. But it does present a problem of effective representation, and this is part of what is driving the secession movement. Obviously, we can’t resurrect the Board of Estimate in its original form, but we need to figure out how to give the boroughs more power to decide their own affairs.

Another cause of frustration—and this affects all the boroughs, not just Staten Island—is how much administrative chaos there is in New York City government. The stories we have heard here speak to this concern: Responsibility for services is fragmented among so many agencies that no one is ultimately accountable.

I think Howard Golden’s proposal is one of the most significant statements that has been made since the new charter about the need to redefine the role of the boroughs in New York City. I have argued that a major flaw in the new charter was that it failed to recognize the historic role of the boroughs in the political culture of New York City.

DICK NETZER, New York University: I agree that the 1989 charter was mistaken in virtually ignoring the existence of the boroughs. Throughout New York’s history, however, there have been frequent changes in the relationship between the city government and the boroughs. In my view, most of these changes—whether in the direction of centralization or decentralization—have been wrong in the details. But a few were right.

One that turned out to have been right—although I didn’t think so at the time—was the strengthening of the community boards in the 1975 charter. Community boards have been more successful with regard to service delivery than anyone could have expected, given the fragmentation of city agencies and the central bureaucracy’s unresponsiveness to communities.

EDWARD COSTIKYAN: I am glad to hear that the community boards are doing better than you expected. I must confess that they are not doing as well as I had hoped at developing a strong voice in service delivery. I think they have been a little diverted into land-use issues. But I still hope they can develop into a more effective service delivery mechanism.

RUTH MESSINGER: A community board can get very sophisticated readings from its neighborhood as to exactly what services are needed. Community boards and borough presidents’ offices often negotiate with agency personnel to secure the projects that make the most sense for the neighborhood.

But land-use issues are of great importance in some local communities. In Manhattan, as I’ve mentioned, we have a huge number of facility-siting issues. I have community boards which, to their credit, will negotiate for a facility that “no one wants.” They want assurances, however, that their concerns will be taken into account in siting and designing the facility. If the city agency won’t give us a memo of understanding that guarantees the community’s concerns are met, we won’t play ball.

HOWARD GOLDEN: The boroughs also need to have more input into the budget process. Currently, the mayor makes up the budget in consultation with the City Council. The new charter does provide for local community boards to prepare their lists of priorities and pass them along to the borough presidents, who then submit suggestions to the mayor and the City Council. But when budget time comes, the citywide officials treat these recommendations as an afterthought.

City agencies, however, jealousy guard their position in the budget; they don’t want to give up any of their funding or their employees. The city therefore ends up allocating money according to the needs of its agencies rather than the needs of its communities. As a result, citizens feel alienated from the budget-making process.

RUTH MESSINGER: I have argued that there would be a dramatic benefit if even a small amount of money were put directly under the control of local communities. What if every community board in the city had $500,000—that’s about $30 million in total—with which they could buy any city service they wanted?

During my first year on the City Council, my local community board passed a resolution calling for sanitation inspection of residential buildings on the West Side to be done from 4 P.M. to midnight. I went to the Department of Sanitation and asked for a nighttime inspector. I was told it was impossible because there would have to be 32 of them. I offered to give up a daytime inspector, but the Sanitation Department said there was no way to do it. If the community boards had a small amount of money at their disposal, they could exercise much more flexibility in meeting the needs of their constituents.

HOWARD GOLDEN: The boroughs need to have more of a say over capital construction projects as well. We have serious infrastructure problems in Brooklyn that are not getting the attention they need from the city. For example, the city says the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway will take ten years to repair. I guarantee it’s going to end up being a twenty-year job. Our surface streets are totally unprepared for the truck traffic that’s going to be diverted off the BQE. The boroughs need more of a voice in capital construction policy. The city treats something like the BQE as one of many problems, whereas in Brooklyn it is a matter of enormous concern.

RUTH MESSINGER: The same problem—a central city bureaucracy insensitive to local concerns—exists in the school system, which was supposedly decentralized in 1969. People run for the local school board, where they discover that they have to deal with a huge bureaucracy at 110 Livingston Street.

There is something fundamentally wrong in a city that has had a decentralized education system for nearly a quarter-century but still has 3,500 people working at central headquarters. There is something the matter with a system in which the central Board of Education spent six months debating two pages of a four-hundred-page curriculum guide that no teacher is actually required to use.

There is great potential for true decentralization of the city schools. I have put forth a proposal that would give individual school districts far more power, while establishing a new position of city education commissioner, with limited duties: to allocate money among the districts on the basis of their student population, to negotiate a master contract with the teachers’ union, to oversee pension administration, and to serve as the city’s education lobbyist and advocate in Washington, in Albany, with the City Council, and with foundations and corporations.

NICHOLAS GARAUFIS: In 1990, Queens Borough President Claire Shulman testified before the Marchi Commission that the operation of the school system should be centered in the boroughs and that the central administration should only deal with issues involving fiscal planning and labor relations. We agree in principle with Ruth Messinger that the school system should be reorganized.

Much has been said about why the Board of Education did not renew Joseph Fernandez’s contract as chancellor. Many people in Queens, at least, were dissatisfied with him for reasons other than “Children of the Rainbow” and condom distribution. Community school superintendents, parents’ associations, and principals did not come forward to support him. He seemed to be more focused on developing his constituency in the Manhattan-centered business community and on dealing with social issues than on the most basic concerns of the schoolhouse—reading, math, and science.

JOSEPH VITERITTL If Joseph Fernandez didn’t take enough trips to Queens, that’s not an institutional problem. Whether the board structure is changed or not, the chancellor can still go to Queens.

On the other hand, one reason the school system is so hard to manage is its sheer size. There are so many schools in the system that if the chancellor visited one on each school day, it would take him seven or eight years to visit every school.

PETER SALINS, Hunter College: As we consider how to decentralize New York City’s government, we will have to think about just how far we want to go. In education, it’s fairly clear: We are talking about five separate school systems, from kindergarten through high school.

But should we go that far for other municipal services? Do we want total responsibility for sanitation at the borough level? For police? Should we have five different sets of Civil Service procedures, five different unions, five different pay schedules?

NICHOLAS GARAUFIS: Decentralization would not have to go that far in order to be meaningful. When the charter was being debated, those of us at the borough level pointed out that we know how to deliver services—that’s what we do best. We wanted to continue to deliver services even after the demise of the Board of Estimate. But the charter commission had a preconceived notion that it should consolidate power in a strong central government, leaving the boroughs only some of the fluff.

Even creating a larger City Council, I would argue, tended to dilute the role of local communities by giving the 51 individual Council members less power in the Council as a whole. A handful of Council leaders end up with the principal legislative authority.

HOWARD GOLDEN: My proposal elicited immediate criticism from two officials: the mayor and the speaker of the City Council, who saw it as a threat to their power. My primary interest, however, is not in giving power to the borough presidents or taking it away from the mayor, but in restoring some power to the boroughs themselves—to the people who live in the boroughs.

PETER SALINS: What about the fiscal question? Is there any interest in pushing decentralization to the point where, for example, property taxes would be set and collected entirely by the boroughs?

ROGER STARR, City Journal: The most difficult part of the division of the boroughs is to find an equitable way to distribute property tax revenues. The real property tax is overwhelmingly raised in Manhattan, because of its concentration of valuable commercial property.

RUTH MESSINGER: The one thing I have promised my colleagues I will never do is claim Manhattan is entitled to all its property tax revenues. Manhattan is, for better or worse, the economic engine for a very large region, and its resources have to be available to meet the needs of that region.

ROGER STARR. I agree that such a revenue-sharing plan is essential. I have come to the conclusion, however, that we need some sort of separation of the boroughs. When we look back on history and ask why the five boroughs joined to become one city, it was primarily because that was the only way to finance a rapid transportation system. That system has been built, and, ironically, it doesn’t belong to the city of New York anymore—it’s a state agency.

Most people don’t think of the five boroughs as constituting a city, but as something more like a regional association consisting of a city—Manhattan—and a number of separate outlying communities. Recently I was driving west on Queens Boulevard, toward the Queensboro Bridge, and I noticed an official sign that said “To the City” and pointed the way to the bridge. Why, I asked myself, do we have to keep pretending that we are simply one city?


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next